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Is Donald Trump the most transparent president ever? No
Time and again, President Donald Trump has asserted that his administration has achieved championship-level transparency.
He did it in a tweet on Aug. 18, 2018, focusing on the White House’s cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller: "I allowed White House Counsel Don McGahn, and all other requested members of the White House Staff, to fully cooperate with the Special Counsel. In addition we readily gave over one million pages of documents. Most transparent in history. No Collusion, No Obstruction. Witch Hunt!"
More recently, during a May 20 exchange with reporters on the White House lawn, Trump said, "There has never been, ever before, an administration that’s been so open and transparent."
Then, four days later, Trump reiterated the point in another White House lawn exchange with reporters: "I was the most transparent — and am — transparent president in history." Trump specifically cited providing Mueller with 500 witnesses, testimony by his attorneys, 2,500 subpoenas, 1.4 million pages of documents.
But does his administration live up to the hype? It does not, whether one looks at his relations with Mueller’s team, his refusal to release his tax returns, or his unwillingness to cooperate with subpoenas from Congress.
In fact, several experts we contacted said they laughed out loud when they first heard Trump make this claim. One of those was Jeffrey A. Engel, the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
"This might not be the most dangerous" of Trump’s questionable claims, "but it is the most laughable," Engel said. "It’s not as though Trump is the only president with a problematic record on transparency, but he has expanded the range and scope" of those problems. (President Barack Obama, for instance, made 35 promises to improve transparency, and we rated 12 of those Promise Broken.)
The White House did not respond to inquiries for this article, but White House spokesman Steven Groves did offer a statement to Politico.
"The president was fully transparent during the Mueller investigation," the statement said. "He made all requested White House staff available for interviews, produced tens of thousands of documents, and answered questions about the ridiculous ‘collusion’ allegations. The White House and the administration will continue to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight while protecting executive branch rights and privileges. In addition, the president and his staff engage with the press and answer their questions almost every day."
However, our look into the Trump administration’s transparency record suggested that the current administration has been less -- not more -- transparent than other recent presidents.
The Trump White House was partially, but not fully, cooperative with the investigation. It did turn over 1.4 million papers, and it didn’t stop some two dozen administration officials from testifying to Mueller. But in other ways, White House cooperation fell short.
As we’ve reported, Mueller and his team sought for more than a year to personally talk to the president, but they were ultimately rebuffed. The special counsel eventually agreed to accept Trump’s written answers to questions, but his responses were "inadequate," Mueller said, and contained dozens of instances where Trump claimed not to recall the information sought. Mueller also noted that Trump declined to answer questions about obstruction of justice, or questions on events that occurred during the presidential transition.
In addition, Mueller documented instances of Trump trying to impede the investigation or directing his staff to do so, including firing Mueller. "The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful," the Mueller report notes, "but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."
While Trump campaign officials have testified in the past to congressional investigative committees, the White House has prevented officials — and even former officials — from testifying or submitting documents to Congress since the Mueller report’s release. These include former White House counsel Don McGahn, former White House communications director Hope Hicks, and one of McGahn’s top aides, Annie Donaldson.
Trump has also sued to block subpoenas for his business records by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and he’s sued to stop two banks he worked with — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — from cooperating with congressional subpoenas.
Fighting over congressional subpoenas is not new. President Bill Clinton asserted executive privilege during the investigation into his affair with Monica Lewinsky, as did President Barack Obama during the investigation into the "Fast and Furious" program, in which federal agents allowed guns to be sold and brought into Mexico so they could trace the weapons.
But experts say that Trump is well on his way to meeting or exceeding the scale of opposition by President Richard Nixon during Watergate, when non-cooperation with congressional subpoenas became a crucial element of impeachment articles against him.
"Trump has resisted oversight to a greater extent than typical, with blanket refusals to cooperate, as opposed to the usual give-and-take," said Eric Schickler, University of California-Berkeley political scientist and co-author of the book "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power."
Trump broke a precedent that went all the way back to Nixon of presidential candidates releasing a copy of their tax returns, usually for multiple years. House Democrats have demanded that the IRS release his returns, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has refused to do so. The dispute is expected to go to court.
Trump regularly stops to take questions from reporters on the White House lawn or while he’s traveling from event to event. His aides do, too. But the regular, institutionalized and usually lengthier briefings by his administrations have slowed almost to zero.
On June 2, 2019, the Washington Post reported that the last time press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up for a regularly scheduled briefing "was 83 days ago, a record period for not briefing the press. She established the previous record (43 days) in March — which broke the record she set in January."
And it isn’t just the White House. The Post reported that May 31, 2019, marked one year since the last Pentagon press briefing, which for years had been held at least weekly.
Trump reversed a practice begun under Obama of publicly releasing White House visitor logs. After a lawsuit, the Trump White House agreed to a settlement in which a portion of those logs are released. Meanwhile, some White House staffers have been required to sign nondisclosure agreements, even interns, according to the Daily Beast.
More broadly, the Associated Press released an analysis in March 2018 showing that "the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn't find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade."
And in November 2018, the pro-transparency FOIA Project released data showing that Freedom of Information Act lawsuits reached a record high in fiscal year 2018. (FOIA is a 1967 law that gives the public the right to request access to records from federal agencies.)
"I can’t think of an area where President Trump has been more transparent" than Obama was, said John Wonderlich, executive director of the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation.
Even one area that might be considered heightened transparency -- Trump’s Twitter feed -- actually serves to undermine scrutiny and openness.
Trump’s tweets do provide an almost stream-of-consciousness report of what’s on his mind -- the kinds of insights that would normally emerge after a president left office and released diaries or wrote memoirs, said Laurie L. Rice, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
The downside, though, is that Trump’s tweets often contain inaccuracies, contradictory information, or unclear arguments -- and unlike the give-and-take of press conferences, tweets cannot be immediately vetted by reporters. Twitter allows Trump to claim, without immediate pushback, that U.S. consumers won’t pay the cost of tariffs (False) or that past presidents always got high approval ratings when the economy was strong (Pants on Fire).
Trump’s tweets are "a form of government-to-public communication that circumvents the free press," said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Trump said, "There has never been, ever before, an administration that’s been so open and transparent."
Trump cited his cooperation with the Mueller investigation, but Mueller himself found several major shortcomings in the Trump White House’s efforts. Beyond that, the Trump administration has assembled a record of aggressive opposition to congressional subpoenas, a longstanding refusal to share his tax returns, a near-zeroing-out of press briefings, and larger numbers of lawsuits demanding the administration release information under FOIA.
We rate the statement Pants on Fire.
Donald Trump, remarks, May 20, 2019
Donald Trump, remarks, May 24, 2019
Donald Trump, tweet, Aug. 18, 2018
FOIA.gov, "What is FOIA?" accessed June 4, 2019
FOIA Project, "Annual Report: FOIA Lawsuits Reach Record Highs in FY 2018," Nov. 12, 2018
Sunlight Foundation, "Tracking Trump’s Attacks on Transparency," accessed June 4, 2019
Washington Post, "Driveway drive-bys: With formal briefings long gone, Trump’s aides meet the press (briefly) in an unusual spot," June 2, 2019
Washington Post, "Pentagon marks a year without press secretary briefings," May 31, 2019
CNN, "Fact-checking Trump claims he's 'the most transparent' president in US history," May 25, 2019
Politico, "Trump's 'most transparent president' claim looks cloudy," May 23, 2019
Washington Post, "White House blocks former counsel McGahn from testifying to Congress," May 20, 2019
CNN, "White House directs Hicks, Donaldson to withhold White House documents from House panel," June 4, 2019
Associated Press, "Trump sues Deutsche Bank and Capital One in attempt to block congressional subpoenas," April 29, 2019
The Hill, "White House releases limited visitor logs after settlement," April 11, 2018
Daily Beast, "Trump White House Is Forcing Interns to Sign NDAs and Threatening Them With Financial Ruin," Feb. 21, 2019
Associated Press, "Federal government sets new record for censoring, withholding files under FOIA," March 12, 2018
Doyle McManus, "The most transparent president ever (not)," May 1, 2019
PolitiFact, "Donald Trump’s tax returns: How Congress might — or might not — get them," April 9, 2019
PolitiFact, "Bernie Sanders has released few tax returns compared with past and present candidates," April 6, 2016
PolitiFact, "What you need to know about executive privilege," May 8, 2019
PolitiFact, "Did Donald Trump ‘fully’ cooperate with Mueller investigation? No," April 22, 2019
PolitiFact, "Trump is wrong that Obama White House refused to turn over documents in congressional probes," March 8, 2019
PolitiFact, Donald Trump Truth-O-Meter index page, accessed June 4, 2019
PolitiFact, Barack Obama Obameter promises on transparency, accessed June 4, 2019
Email interview with Emily Manna, policy analyst with Open the Government, June 4, 2019
Email interview with Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, June 3, 2019
Email interview with Laurie L. Rice, political scientist at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, June 3, 2019
Email interview with Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, June 3, 2019
Email interview with Eric Schickler, University of California-Berkeley political scientist and co-author of the book, "Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power," June 3, 2019
Interview with Jeffrey A. Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, June 3, 2019
Interview with John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, June 4, 2019
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Is Donald Trump the most transparent president ever? No
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